Way, way back in March, a little title popped up on the Nintendo DS. It was known as Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars, and videogame critics fell over themselves complimenting the little title that could. But in deep, dark basements across the land, PSP gamers rocked themselves to sleep while weeping. For the first time in recent memory, a portable Grand Theft Auto was coming out and it wasn't coming to the PSP.
That all changes today. Yes, Chinatown Wars is out for the PSP, and yes, it's awesome.
In typical GTA fashion, Chinatown Wars casts you as a no-good loner named Huang Lee. Huang was happy to be a rich, spoiled kid eating up all of his father's money, but when his pop is murdered, Huang must return to Liberty City to pass on a family heirloom and keep the world spinning. See, Huang's father was the leader of the Triads in L.C. and his death has sparked a bit of a power struggle in the metropolis.
How many people will die in our video review?
Of course, things are never simple in GTA. As soon as he steps off the plane, Huang is abducted, left for dead, and robbed of the sword that was his sole purpose for coming to town. With revenge on his mind, the player is launched into a tale of murder, betrayal, drugs, guns, and so much more.
If you've somehow missed all the hubbub about Chinatown Wars, this title might not be what you're expecting in terms of a traditional PSP GTA. There's no behind the back third-person perspective, no voice acting in the cutscenes, and no strive for the most realistic looking game possible. Chinatown Wars is played from an angled top-down perspective, told through some moving art cutscenes, and features a bright and vibrant look akin to an animated film. As a longtime fan of the series, there were plenty of times that I'd be blowing cars off the road with my tank or leaving foes in bright red pools of blood with my chaingun and get the throwback feel of GTA II.
That's a good thing.
There were times when I was breezing down the road on my way to a mission while following my GPS (you can set it to appear on the radar and the actual road if you like), and I would literally be taken aback by how good the action looked. The driving is fluid, the graphics are slick, and everything has polish to it.
However, beyond this new look, you're getting everything that makes a GTA game great. There's the deep story we've already touched on, but that breaks down into more than 70 story missions that have you working for different gangs, jerks, and cops in all sorts of crazy ways. One moment you're sabotaging a racecar, the next you're torching a warehouse full of marijuana, and then you're fleeing a bank robbery dressed as a Chinese dragon. The varied missions and humor you'd expect from this franchise are here in spades.
Beyond the story stuff, there are ambulance missions, vigilante missions, Chinese food delivery missions, people to find and help on the street -- like the porno actor who needs a ride to an audition while getting fluffed -- and (the crème de la crème) the act of dealing drugs.
Now, I've never sold narcotics or wacky tobaccy, but I can assure you that if it was as fun and as profitable as it is in Chinatown Wars, I'd be out on the street corner right now. In Liberty City, drug dealers are all over the place. As you're hot-rodding through town, the drug dealers will pop up as little blue dots. Once you stop and chat them up, survey their stock, and so on, they become little blue briefcases on your map so that you can stop back in whenever you feel like it. The reason behind this is that dealing drugs is the best way to make a living in Chinatown Wars.
At the end of a given mission, you'll get $50 or $200 bucks for your efforts and you can always whack someone on the street for a couple of bucks, but if you want to be able to pick up a few $3,500 Carbine Rifles from Ammu-Nation (which you now order via your PDA and have delivered to your safe house), you're going to need to start making the big bucks. Turning a profit in the drug-running game comes down to the old stock market adage "buy low, sell high."
When you start making your drug dealer connections, you'll start getting tips -- some college kids are desperate for weed and will pay through the nose, some dealer in Fishmarket South has really cheap ecstasy, etc. -- and you'll need to capitalize on those offers. When you find heroin on the cheap, buy everything you can. You're drug bag can only carry 50 units, but you can store as much as your want in your safe house. Feel free to make multiple trips, because at some point you're going to get a tip about some idiot willing to pay through the nose for a drug. That's when you strike and make a mint.
If you get in too deep, you can sell your product to any dealer (the GPS lets you see which of the 80 dealers prefer what drug) and make some money, but the big paydays come from the tips. Rushing around the city trying to cash in on deals that are about to expire, building your network, and becoming a kingpin is totally one the high points of Chinatown Wars for me.
Another section I couldn't get enough of is actually a new set of missions exclusive to the PSP. Melanie Mallard is an aspiring journalist trying to break into network news, and she's using your underhanded exploits to do it. You'll need to take her inside the underworld as she films the wheelings and dealings you're up to on a daily basis. Lots of times, this comes down to you protecting Mel as things go awry, but the missions are all wrapped up in entertaining conversations between Huang and her, a bizarre but funny relationship with Chan, and some truly memorable missions.
Kill them all.
"Half Cut" has your reporter and main character cruising the streets and delivering a new narcotic from their van. The drug's highly experimental and causes the junkies taking it to flip out a bit. I'm pretty sure watching as the drug addicts snorted the powder off the street, became enraged like zombies from 28 Days Later, and rushed the van while Mel filmed is my favorite moment from this game. That entire mission of delivering product and trying to get out alive was just a blast.
When the cops get involved with trying to stop you, Rockstar flips the script once again. Break the law in the past, you'd start racking up stars that signified your Wanted Level. The more stars, the more aggressive the police would be in trying to take you down. That's still the case here, but now you don't have to hide or get a new paint job to get to freedom (although you can). In Chinatown Wars, you can take out cop cars to take out stars. Knock one cop car out of commission, and you'll lose a one-star Wanted Level. Have a two-star level? You'll need to knock out two cars to get the level to one and then another car to wipe the slate clean.
This, in my opinion, is a much needed change. In the past, Wanted Levels reaching into the threes and fours seemed to be unwinnable. You were never going to get enough distance between yourself and the po-po to repaint your ride. Here, you can focus on the mission at hand and then turn your attention toward wiping out the boys in blue. It's brilliant.
Another change to the traditional GTA format is the fact that you can now replay missions you've already completed whenever you want. In your safe house (you're awarded and able to purchase new HQs all over Liberty City), there's a white board with photos of everyone you've ever worked with. Selecting one of these folks presents you with every mission you've ever completed for them. The idea is simple and perfect for the portable: jump into your favorite mission, play it again, and see what you can post as your best time.
However, this doesn't have to be a race with your own shadow. Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars is compatible with a whole slew of kickass stuff on Rockstar's Social Club. You create an account on the official site
and then link that account through your in-game PDA. Once this is done, Chinatown Wars is taken to a whole new level. You'll be able to make friends with other players and compare stats -- oodles of stats such as the value of the drugs you've sold, the number of cars you've destroyed, and the criminals you've killed -- but there's so much more. When you sync your stats to the servers for the first time via the computer in your safe house and a wifi connection, you'll get a message from Xin and suddenly have access to a whole new set of missions. If you play the mini-games on the Social Club website -- a laundry catching game and a shooting game that has you making pancakes -- you're earning money that eventually will earn you new in-game duds and a bulletproof car.
On top of that, there's an interactive guide map online that's personalized to your save. On this map, you can toggle on and off the locations for all of the game's 30 stunt jumps, 100 security cameras, 80 drug dealers, and 43 rampages. This map will show you the ones you've already dealt with, the ones you've missed, and the ones your friend has hit up or missed out on.
Personally, I'm not one to often go online and fool with a game's website, but that's usually because they're not as cool as this one. If you haven't caught on yet, I dig Chinatown Wars and fully plan to go deal drugs on my PSPgo for the foreseeable future. I'm going to hit up the Guide Map for the dealers I'm missing, I'm going to unlock that damn car, and I'm going to monitor my stats like a madman until I've achieved the rank of drug lord.
As great as Chinatown Wars is, there are a couple of quirks under the hood. For starters, this game was originally a DS game, and it shows. Over on the DS there were all these mini-games where you made use of your touch screen. You had to tap the touch screen to break car windows, cut out door panels to find hidden contraband, and so on. Here on the PSP, those games remain, but now they're controlled by buttons and joysticks.
It's a bit hit or miss.
Tapping X to jam a screwdriver into a steering column and then rotating the analog nub to turn the engine over was fun and so was alternating between the L and R buttons to break locks. However, wiggling the nub to scratch off lotto tickets and moving a gas pump with the D-pad to fill Molotov bottles just didn't do it for me; the actions felt stiff and didn't really give me the natural control you'd expect. If anything, these pulled me out of the experience more than sucking me into it.
Another presentation stumble comes down to saving and load screens. Thankfully, Chinatown Wars lets you save at anytime when you're not in a mission and even packs an autosave feature that will kick in each time you complete a mission. Problem is -- on the UMD version of the game -- the autosave takes a hair-raising 17 seconds. That's 17 seconds where the game is frozen and you can't do anything; it's not like the short DS autosave that let you keep moving. You can disable autosave and just remember to save manually, which takes nine seconds on the UMD version, but I can tell you from experience that it sucks if the PSP dies on you and you've forgotten to save your progress for awhile.
Be the dealer.
The silver lining to all of this? Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars is on the PlayStation Network day and date with the UMD hitting stores. If you're running the digital version, the autosave is five seconds and the manual save is about one second. That's right -- one second.
As for the load issue, it mainly becomes an issue in your PDA. Here, you're going to have to pop into your XrossMediaBar-looking thing and read e-mails, plot GPS routes, and so on, and in between each application jump, there's going to be a little load screen where a moving circle plays. It's just a few seconds and it's the same on both the UMD and downloadable versions, but it can weigh on you if you're trying to jump between e-mails and maps a lot. It's not crippling, but it can get annoying.
As if the world of single-player and chasing your friend's times on the Rockstar Social Club weren't enough, Chinatown Wars packs ad-hoc multiplayer featuring six modes. Now, each of these is happening in the world you know from the game and each has a bunch of different options to tinker with before your match. You can race your friends, take part in a racing season, compete to be the first to get your hands on a stash of contraband, and so on.
For my money "Defend the Base" is the way to go with a buddy. Here, you get eight co-op scenarios where you and a pal have to stand strong and keep an area safe from wave after wave of attacking enemies. Each time a new wave pops up, the opposition is a bit tougher than before. IGN News Editor Jim Reilly and myself took on a couple modes today, and trying to keep three vans from getting blown up (hint: we failed) was the high point of my day. Screaming at Jim as I blew myself up with a grenade was fun.
There is one small hitch with this multiplayer madness. In my play sessions, it seemed like the game chugged a bit whenever a car was involved. The races and the "Stash Dash" we tried had moments where the framecount dropped and things ran slow. This was a bit troublesome as I was trying to be as accurate a driver as possible. This problem didn't pop up when we were on foot.
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